Hesitant Animisms

Thanks to Terence Blake, who made me aware of this book, I started to read Feyerabend’s postumous Conquest of Abundance. On the side, I watched the only substantial interview with the famous philosopher I could find on the internet, the Interview in Rome, from 1993. What struck me most in the interview was Feyerabend’s obvious sympathy for times before ‘Entzauberung’ – a word which is hard to translate in English. Max Weber introduced it to signify the disappearance, in modernity, of spiritual experience from the public domain. The world, the public realm in which we live, is not subject to spiritual experiences, nor magical interferences any more – but only to calculation and argumentation. While Enlightenment ideology has convinced us most of the time of the blessings, progress, and improvement of everything modernity brought – Feyerabend seems to have seen the intrinsic relationship between Entzauberung and the ugliness of our world, and also the peril we are in.

In his Conquest of Abundance he approaches this issue in ontology, in the essay ‘What Reality?’ Here he makes it clear that cultures are not closed, that we have to accept pluralism in ontology, as ‘a unitarian realism’ is unconvincing, having to reduce ‘large areas of phenomena […], without proof, […] to basic theory, which, in this connection, means elementary particle physics.’ His plea for pluralism, and for intercultural learning implies that we should take seriously alternatives to modernism as they are present in history as well as in other cultures in modern times. It struck me that even in these texts written in the last years of his life, his coming closer to a more animist outlook is still so hesitant. Just as it was with William James, in his late work A Pluralistic Universe. Of course one might explain this hesitation from their position as philosophers, having to deal with the massive corpus of writings that have tried to make belief in the soul, in life, in change extinct.

In other disciplines this hesitation is less strong – as in the anthropological work of Felicitas Goodman, who by means of practical experimentation found that ancient statuettes show body postures that lead to specific types of trance. Trance that leads one to be able to learn from the spirit realm, about health, living in peace with nature, and about the afterlife. In her book Where the Spirits ride the Wind, she describes her research in this field, and advocates it as a way to rediscover human potential that was lost not only since modernity, but much longer, every time humans transferred from being hunter gatherers or horticulturalists to large scale agriculture. The time when woods are destroyed, wild animals retreat and die, and shamanism gradually gives way to monotheistic theology. Here, with monotheism, starts the belief in the autonomous subject, the individual who is a unity like his God, and who can (and should) bear responsibility in a moral sense – as he lives and moves under the ever present gaze of his God.

We are not finished by far with the task of having to analyze the effects of this event. Declaring all history after the agricultural revolution to be mistaken would be going too fast. As would be a simple declaration that prehistoric life is beautiful, lovely and a great loss. One has to move slowly, and search for negatives and positives on both sides. One has to try to understand, to see, before judging. I do not mind someone like Goodman taking a very unusual approach methodologically, as I agree with Feyerabend that in order to understand one should try his principle that ‘anything goes’. I do not share Goodman’s pessimist conclusion however that myths that are lost are to be mourned, as ‘extinction is forever’. I rather believe in the words of the native healer from Tonga cited by Robert Wolff, the psychologist who came into contact with his own shamanic powers through the training he received from an indigenous people in Malaysia in the sixties. He spoke with this woman about his sadness that so much old knowledge has been lost. She replied, after some thought, to him: ‘[…] there have always been people who know. When we most need it, someone will remember that ancient knowledge.’ And here lies for me the important point: we cannot understand our own position in history, nor do we know whether we already need it, that ancient knowledge, and in what measure. Time will tell.

Books mentioned and cited from are:

Paul Feyerabend Conquest of Abundance. A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being, The University of Chicago Press, 1999

Felicitas D. Goodman Where the Spirits ride the Wind. trance Journeys and other exstatic Experiences, Indiana University Press, 1990

William James A Pluralistic Universe. Hibbert Lectures at Manchester College on the Present Situation in Philosophy, University of Nebraska Press, 1996 [1909]

Robert Wolff, Original Wisdom. Stories of an ancient way of knowing, Inner Traditions International, 2001

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5 comments
  1. onesis said:

    Not everyone who comes into contact with animism finds it enjoyable, or rewarding. For instance if you are a woman and a tribal elder takes a fancy to you, and being number six wife isn’t exactly what you had in mind. Also along with animism is a belief in ancestral spirits, and if one’s own ancestors are not part of the spirit world of the particular animist tribe one is in contact with, then one is an alien, and one may be treated as such. For those of us who are not part of an animist culture, there may be no way back into it, and any attempt to make that journey may be very disappointing (to say the very least). We have to move on from where we actually are, not from where our ancestors may have been long ago. This is not to say that we have nothing to learn from animism. We do. But one thing we cannot do is uproot ourselves from our own culture and become animists. Not authentically.

    • Thanks, David, for your comment.I surely agree with your conclusion, that we can not free ourselves authentically from our own culture. About Goodman’s research, I think she was primarily interested in the trance potential that is mostly forgotten in modernity. As her research showed, it is not lost at all, but can (obviously) very easily be retrieved with a simple rattling sound and a posture. As to ancient cultures (and what rests from them nowadays in modern times) – although I do not think one can adopt them, let alone come to get to know them completely (as is however neither possible with one’s own due to blind spots), I do think one can communicate among cultures. That is Feyerabend’s point: cultures are open, communicate, and change one another. Trying to preserve an ancient lifestyle like it is a museum artifact, has nothing to do with humanity. Looking and learning does. I think we agree, this dialogue is just a way of looking for more and better ways to express –

  2. Anything goes – leading to spiritual entropy?
    Is the ideology of Hitler and the ideology of Stalin included? Is the claim of traditionalist healers in Africa that they can cure AIDS included? Is the motivation that led to 9-11 included? Is modern economic liberalism with its profit motive and the consumer culture with its pleasure motive that bring us to the brink of global catastrophe? Does it make a difference whether you think you should get reconciled with your enemies or that you should get rid of them?
    Can we really afford to suspend the common struggle for the truth – or for the vision of comprehensive optimal well-being for the whole of reality accessible to us?
    If you are interested look at my recent book Klaus Nurnberger: ‘Informed by Science, Involved by Christ’ (London: Xlibris 2013)

    • Thanks, Klaus, for reading my post and commenting. I did not read your new book, but I read your book ´The living dead and the living God´ which much appreciation some time ago. Of course I did not mean ´anything goes´ in a moral sense, but only in the methodological way that Feyerabend does. He means that for scientists to find new insights, they have to let go of the belief in one true methodology, but instead playfully try out ways of knowing and researching. Actually the common struggle for truth can only move forward if we dialogue interculturally, and move beyond modernist dogmatism. I think this is also part of your endeavor. So yes, I will certainly look your book up! Thanks again.

      • Thank you, Angela, for responding so positively.
        O yes, I am also for openness and for learning from each other. When I had sent of my last comment I wondered whether my previous book would not be more in your line than ‘Informed by Science’. The latter specifically encourages Christians to take science on board. The title of the previous one is: Regaining Sanity for the Earth – Why science needs ‘best faith’ to be responsible, why faith needs ‘best science’ to be credible. London: Xlibris, 2011.
        All of which does not want to say that I expect you to read my books! Once again thanks for your interest and kind regards, Klaus

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